The Other Auld Alliance

Down our way, Labour candidates for Thursday are banging on about jobs and buses, as if their political lives dependent on it. Which they do. That is unfortunate for them; the SNP has already sorted the local problem with buses, but they keep banging on about them because they have no idea how to replace that ploy with anything relevant.

But their point about jobs has some validity in the present UK recession. Trouble is that their proposals how to provide any jobs are seriously light on detail. They promise to end youth unemployment by creating a place for every school leaver. This echoes Irn Broon’s wheezes of camouflaging dole queues by giving them pretendy work. But they’re rather more coy to identify either useful jobs to employ them or public money to fund those jobs. Hardly the clear forward thinking of a party expecting to deliver on their promises.

But, with England wallowing even deeper in recession than Scotland, the initiatives that might provide those well paid, business-boosting, economy-booming jobs are unlikely to come from ‘dahn saff’. So, if not there, where?

Today’s Hootsmon carries an intriguing op ed piece by Wolfgang Michalski entitled Hamburg is a Model Worth Emulating. This probably comes as a surprise to most Scots. For all that modern life has made travel abroad commonplace, it’s unlikely that 1 in 100 Scots have ever been there—despite the fact that, of major European cities, only those in the Low Countries are actually closer to us. More than anything, this underscores the historical down side of our 300-year union with England, after which our attention went global as our new partnership engaged in empire-building.

Seven hundred years ago, the world was very different—and not just because so much of the world remained unknown, not to mention unexploited. Because overland trade was made nigh impossible by poor roads, the Scots were very active in seaborne trade and travel: it was easier and faster to get to Danzig than to Doncaster, especially with a load of hides. Lads o’ pairts like own John Maior of Gleghornie (just outside North Berwick) studied in Paris and became a high official at the Vatican. Highland chieftains would send their sons to France for schooling. From our East coast ports, major trade with the Baltic and Low Countries in hides, wool, cattle, etc, met finished goods coming the other way.

Originally, most of the trade was with the Hanseatic Ports. The long east coastline of Scotland gave Scottish merchants a much shorter sea crossing to Scandinavia and the Baltic ports.  Until 1296 Berwick was the leading Scottish port when it was then taken by Edward I. By the late 1300s there were in excess of 70 ports, harbours and havens in Scotland. Leith had the greatest trade, followed by Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth and the many harbours around the Firth of Forth.

It was from this trade that so many Scots made major contributions across Northern Europe: ‘Scottish’ towns in Poland; generals and entire regiments in the Swedish armies of Gustavus Adolphus; fifteen admirals in the Russian Navy. It was a heritage that once helped Scotland blossom into a place in the world but one we have long forgotten. Though never formulated as such, it was an ‘Auld Alliance’ that actually brought us far more good than the better-known one with France that only ever took us to war.

Decline began with the virtually terminal decline of the Hanseatic League in the late 15th century and remaining focus lost with the Union as trade turned towards the New World and colonies. But what once made trade easy—close proximity, a common egalitarian culture, Protestant ethics and doughty determination in adversity—is still there.

So when Herr Michaelski refers to the Scottish Government’s 2006 paper  “Business Growth – the next 10 years“, it seems puzzling that more has not been made of such dormant links to provide that growth, especially in light of the subsequent recession. Because, of all developed countries, it is exactly those old friends from half a millennium ago who are weathering these present economic difficulties best. Scandinavia, Germany and Benelux have seen none of the GIPS (Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain) financial stress; none of their banks needed bailing out; none of them have seen recession, let alone a double-dip one.

So, rather than waiting for a further turn of Osbo’s quantitive easing and financial screws an analysis of the Hamburg district and its (booming) local economy, as Herr Michaelski suggests, might offer a more productive approach. Key to this is the fact that Hamburg is neither the capital (Berlin), nor the industrial focus of its country (Ruhr). But what it has is a flexible economy that has reinvented itself down the years, adapting its focus to what provided prosperity to its citizens at any given time.

Other places have risen and fallen on the success of one industry. Glasgow is such an example. From little more than a village at the time of Culloden, it grew into the ‘Second City of the Empire’ on the back of shipbuilding and the heavy industry derived from it. But the shipyards were late in adopting welded hulls; the North British Locomotive Co was still building steam engines in 1960. Glasgow is still recovering from the resulting decline.

Map of Glasgow in the Early 1700's

But Hamburg has reinvented itself several times since its Hanseatic heyday. To quote Michaelski’s article:

Today, Hamburg is, in terms of both population and GDP, the most important non-capital city in the European Union. And although shipbuilding and the oil industry, two of the growth sectors of the city’s economy during the 20th century are no longer there, it is still the number one industrial city and trading centre in Northern Europe. It is now the world’s third most important location for the civil aircraft industry, operates one of the two leading European container ports, is home to Europe’s biggest copper smelter and a leader in new energy technologies. And despite all this industrial activity, the city remains a pleasant place to live, winning high scores in lifestyle rankings.”

It is all very well for us Scots to wax lyrical about how much more prosperous we would be with independence—and I, for one, believe that to be true. However, that does not mean that we should sit around waiting for that to be our salvation. If Hamburg (and other places) can prosper and offer a high quality of life to their citizens, while still being treated as a distant province their own country, the dismissive way that Scotland is treated by London is no excuse for us to sulk about it.

Our own Scottish Government’s Culture Committee laid the groundwork in a paper six years ago; that was when Labour ruled the roost, so instead of partisan obstruction that sometimes clogs up our national strategy, this ought to be the chance for cross-party consensus to dig Scotland out of this fiscal mire and leave our English cousins wondering how a country they see as “too poor and too wee” managed it.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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